Viewers are caught in a crossfire at the start of Polish photographer Teresa Gierzyńska’s first major retrospective. On the facing walls of Zachęta National Gallery hang two self-portraits. The black-and-white images Left-handed I and Left-handed II (both 1980) show the artist pointing a crude reflex camera towards the center of the gallery. With this simple gesture, she communicates that she’s in charge here.

Born in 1947, Gierzyńska trained as a sculptor in the studio of Oskar Hansen, who encouraged her “to experiment, to question the existing rules.”11
Marika Kuźmicz, “A Space for Us All,” in About Her. Teresa Gierzyńska, ed. Joanna Kordjak, Zachęta (Warsaw: National Gallery of Art Warsaw, 2021), 138.
Gierzyńska's experiment is not merely formal or technical, but extends to challenging the patriarchic status quo. It is, first and foremost, an existential decision: a way of living and making art. The “About Her” series (1979–present) introduces a number of the techniques by which Gierzyńska pursues this project, and this first part of the show is prefaced by a revealing quote from the artist: “I talk about intimacy, love, loneliness, femininity, motherhood, puberty, relationships […] in a rather quiet voice, even a whisper.”

Her photographs are colored with aniline, while details are added with pen and pencil; other images are copied and reframed. These intimate pieces cover one wall without an immediately discernible order, resembling a starry sky. Only after a while does one start to recognize constellations: repeated poses, duplicated frames, echoes of previously noticed compositions. Self-portraits depict a trembly, often faceless figure. Their titles—Hysterical, Composed, Quiet, Self-contained, Unapproachable—offer the only hints to the character’s personality.

In the final room, which foregrounds Gierzyńska’s ventures beyond photography, visible pieces, scraps, and snippets return as metaphors for the impossibility of fully knowing oneself and others. Displayed in a vitrine, the “Notepad” series (1977–78) features small plaster chunks which resemble artifacts from a distant past. Fragmentary images of female bodies have been pressed into the plaster and left to weather on the surface. Although the survey spans three large rooms, presenting over 100 works from Gierzyńska's extensive oeuvre, it’s easy to imagine that it could have been larger. But this restraint feels justified and in keeping with Gierzyńska’s practice: a whisper rather than a shout.

Gierzyńska’s show is the last under the direction of Hanna Wróblewska, who has led Zachęta since 2010. Among Wróblewska’s many achievements has been establishing a program that was as ambitious as it was accessible, instructive, and welcoming. The agenda of her successor, Janusz Janowski—appointed by the right-wing government in a decision that has sent shockwaves through the art world—as outlined in a program document published on the first day of his office, is outdated and alarming. His exhibition plan is monopolized by a move away from artists like Gierzyńska towards chillingly reactionary mixture of surveys of national art grouped in media-focused reviews, and myopic, possibly propagandistic presentations.22
Janusz Stanisław Janovski, “Content Plan 2022–2025” (Warsaw: National Gallery of Art Warsaw, 2022) https://bip.mkidn.gov.pl/media/docs/Programy%20Dzialan/2022/Program_merytoryczny_i_organizacyjny_ZNGS_2022-25.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0wo4EhhTEEgHT8dRF60Po5DBBGDxlYNVmppYZlMRvEKb-0nzfzc7I6VVA.
It seems that Zachęta will soon cease to fulfill the role of an institution posing questions, and instead commence providing definite answers, ones that the viewer is not invited to dispute.